SHAKESPEARE depicted the trials of a "slacker" generation in Henry IV Part I, in which King Henry broods upon the "riot and dishonor" that "stain the brow" of his son, Prince Hal, who is running amok in the taverns of England with the disorderly Falstaff. Hal enjoys his "loose behavior"--drinking, playing pranks on his rotund companion and robbing the King's exchequer. Thus Shakespeare sets the plot line for several recent films: young sons (and sometimes daughters) of less-than-perfect parents face impending adulthood and a troubled society with resistance or deliberate passivity; success is for others, the aspiring Hotspurs of the world. And if success does come--as it finally does for Hal when he defeats Hotspur in battle and subsequently becomes noble Henry V--it carries a heavy price. Hal must renounce Falstaff and take on the ruthless trappings of patriotic warfare. Success, as the recent films also warn, may exact a price not worth paying.
Two 1991 films--Richard Linklater's Slackers and Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho--pick up the generational theme and, in the case of the latter, even the specific Shakespearean allusion. Two of this year's films--Ben Stiller's Reality Bites and Lasse Hallstrom's What's Eating Gilbert Grape--take the genre further, vividly defining the world of a generation facing an uncertain future in a messed-up nation.
Slacker provides the name, some say, for the generation of Americans also dubbed (through Douglas Couphland's novel) Generation X. Linklater's low-budget method is to follow numerous slackers through Austin, Texas, moving haphazardly from person to person in a string of vignettes. The film's style and minimal plot emphasize separated, unconnected realities. The characters have no history, not even a long-term memory. Yet Linklater, who has since made a study of high school alienation in Dazed and Confused (1993), effectively portrays a group of people he sees as having "active mind[s] and too much time."
Linklater populates his film with unemployed 20-year-olds talking, drifting, wandering. And he offers plenty of portentous symbols for the age: the rock band "The Ultimate Losers," featuring bad, unmelodic music; the man surrounded by televisions--even wearing one--who finds broadcast images more authentic than the real events; the JFK-assassination-theory junkie and the aging anarchist reliving the day Charles Whitman opened fire from the University of Texas clock tower, both seeking meaning in random violence. People dismiss foreign travel as "only bad food and bad water," wait for the apocalypse and sleep a lot; their slogan is "I may live badly, but I don't have to work to do it."
Linklater's disjointed vision offers neither hope nor despair. Families seem irrelevant, except for an opening sequence in which characters report that "some guy ran over his mother." Young children show vitality in the few scenes in which they appear, but their vigor stems from hustling pocket change. And while many of the characters inhabit a world of talk and ideas and books, their key text would have to be Growing Up Absurd.
Van Sant's main character in My Own Private Idaho is the 20-something bisexual, narcoleptic street hustler Mike Waters (the late River Phoenix). Mike wanders through the underworld of Portland, Oregon, defending himself from reality by lapsing into narcoleptic seizures of escape, waking hours later in loneliness. Much of the story centers on Mike's search for his mother--which takes him to his father's bleak trailer home in Idaho--and for a semblance of "normal" family fife, or even memories of such a life. Van Sant relentlessly pins Mike's sordid, slacker reality to his dysfunctional past and leaves his protagonist with nothing more than dreaming images. The '50s family of mom, dad, kids and dog can't be found, and Mike ends the film as he began it--on the open road in Idaho, looking to a hopeful horizon and moving sky and lapsing into another narcoleptic sleep.
Van Sant enlivens his daring and largely successful film by folding in an explicit appropriation of Shakespeare's slacker plot. Mike's primary human interaction is with fellow hustler Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), the Hal-like son of Portland's mayor. Scott throws off his slumming life of hustling, squatting and poverty midway through the film and renounces his Falstaffian companion Bob Pigeon (William Reichert) and pal Mike in order to return to respectability. In appropriating the Shakespearean plot and language, Van Sant takes an interesting risk but also articulates an important theme of these films: entry into the world of respectable adults may be possible, but it's suspect and probably constitutes betrayal. This Hal finds no glory in battle, and Van Sant borrows only the darker elements of Shakespeare's story. The Scott Favors of the world can follow their parents into affluence, but more often this generation is left with Mike Waters on the road to nowhere.
Reality Bites clothes the basic Hollywood triangle plot in the attire of 1990s graphics and youth culture. From the opening videotaped scenes of a college graduation, we know that these characters, chiefly Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) and Lelaina Pierce (Winona Hyder), face a high-tech world of anomie. In her graduation speech Lelaina laments the damage done by the '60s generation--the environmental disasters and the insoluble challenges they have left behind. The answer to these problems, she tells the assembled mass, is "I don't know. . ."
These successful graduates soon find themselves in a "den of slack," searching for meaning in a world where the Big Gulp seems the most profound modern invention and the Brady Bunch stands for both high culture and the ideal life. Parents, again, are pitiful, hopeless drones who can only lament the lack of a work ethic in their offspring or provide empty necessities such as a BMW and a gasoline credit card. These slackers have no role models and have been handed a messed-up, soulless world. No wonder they so often engage in conversations like the following:
"You're really beautiful."
"Are you religious?"
Again, large cultural symbols abound, most concisely in Lelaina's friend Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), who accepts respectability in the form of a manager's job at The Gap but lives a life of promiscuity--she carefully notes sex partner No. 66 in her bedside diary even though she forgets his name--and worries about getting AIDS.
The real values of Stiller's slacker lesson emerge when Lelaina crashes into (literally, as she daydreams behind the wheel) aspiring young executive Michael Grates (Stiller), hustling up hot new videos for In Your Face TV. He represents an upscale alternative to slacker boyfriend Troy and a possible entree into the world of money, big-time pop culture and respectability. But, predictably, this alternative pales. In Your Face transforms honest, heartfelt video into slick, soulless TV fare. Well-meaning Michael loses out and Troy, fired from 12 jobs but still true to his artistic vision and his rock music, ultimately wins Lelaina's heart. They vow that just "being yourself" is the answer--even if they don't know what that means.
The best of the films is Hallstrom's relatively unnoticed What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Less facile than Reality Bites, more tender and engaging than My Own Private Idaho or Slackers, Gilbert Grape nonetheless voices the same cultural lamentation--and eventual celebration--of a newly lost generation. Hallstrom's position as an outsider he's Swedish, as is his wonderfully talented cinematographer Sven Nykvist) and an established talent (My Life As a Dog, 1985) set him apart from the young American directors of the other films, yet he effectively clarifies the generational messages.
The title character Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) lives his meaningless life in small-town Endora, Iowa, saddled with a spectacularly dysfunctional family. His mother, Bonnie Grape (Darlene Cates), literally weighs down her household, her 500-pound frame wedged in front of the television around the clock, casting a pall of stasis even as she provides a freakshow attraction to local youth; his absent father is only a distant memory; and his brother Arnie (brilliantly played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is an 18-year-old mentally impaired live-wire given to climbing the town's water tower. Gilbert, a 20-something clerk in the local grocery that is quickly losing out to the new Food Land, thus bears the familiar burden of being young and sensitive in an uncaring world that offers him no future and no role models.
Yet Gilbert prevails. He remains uncontaminated by his more successful yokel friends, a local mortician constantly scouting for business) and a young man eager to get in on the ground floor of the new Burger Barn franchise. He survives a brush with adult life in the form of an affair with the lecherous wife (Mary Steenburgen) of a smarmy insurance salesman. He finds true love in the childlike Becky (Juliette Lewis), another noble but scarred victim of failed American marriages, brought to town in a caravan of Airstream trailers as she travels across the country with her grandmother. But most of all, Gilbert prevails through taking care of Arnie, finding humor and humanity in minding a brother who cannot face the demands of a demented, materialistic society. In caring for his impaired brother, the misfit Gilbert finds a meaning and center in a world that offers him--like the slackers of the other films--neither upward mobility nor glamour. Though Hallstrom veers toward making Gilbert an icon of noble, misunderstood youth, he nonetheless succeeds in creating a screen relationship that transcends cliches and sermons. Gilbert, alone of these recent film heroes, finds meaning in family and rootedness.
Like Stiller's Lelaina and Troy and Van Sant's Mike Waters, Gilbert faces an uncertain world with equanimity, if not hope. The products of failed families, the victims of a vicious economic system, they prevail through their own quirky systems of belief, their artistic visions, and their rejection of materialistic values. These films seem to say that heroes--antiheroic and diminished though they are--can still be found voicing authentic visions of the self. While parents and the system may fail them, these young victim-heroes will continue on, we know not where or how or by what financial means, to a truer life.
In different ways, these four films present the bleak world facing a generation of Americans with the most--if not the best education in our nation's history. The films stand united in condemning the materialism and blithe hopes of progress of the baby-boomer and Reagan generations. Unlike Benjamin Braddock in Mike Nichols's The Graduate [1967)--the film for my generation--who at least has solicitous elders offering advice for a prosperous future ("plastics . . ."), these heroes have few prospects. But like Benjamin, these film heroes are endowed with a hopeful outlook-based on little substance--that authenticity, sincerity and a resistance to the sell-out will prevail.
The film industry relies on young audiences who, presumably, want to see themselves on screen. Hollywood has accommodated, portraying this generation as somehow winsome and heroic despite their Gilbert Grapish sense of reduced expectations. Yet big-budget films like Reality Bites have fared poorly among youthful audiences, who apparently would rather not confront their bleak lives on the big screen. Or perhaps such films simply remind them that success--in the form of slick commercial films--carries a price they too might have to pay if they join Prince Hal in "redeeming time" and throwing off the "loose behavior" of lost youth.…